Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Montreal Mysteries on Canada Day. . .

Whoops! I see there's some danger of slipping back into my old ways; it's three weeks since I last posted. (echoes there, aren't there, of my old Catholic formula for confession? Bless me, Father, it's 3 weeks since my last confession. . . )

When I signed off my last post, I promised my next would be about a book I'd been waiting a few years to read. I didn't explain what had kept me waiting, but, in fact, the book wasn't written, nor published, until just this year. However, I'd already read the first two Emile Cinq-Mars mysteries by John Farrow (a pseudonym for Trevor Ferguson, whose bibliography includes what are generally considered more "literary" novels; his have been very well received and reviewed), and like many fans, I'm sure, had been tapping my foot just a bit impatiently waiting for this one. The third book featuring Montreal detective Cinq-Mars, River City, was an odd hybrid of historical fiction and mystery. Over 800 pages, it traced Montreal's history since European contact through a dagger once owned by explorer Jacques Cartier. Cinq-Mars appears in the novel as a young constable in the turbulent 70s of Montreal's (Quebec's) separatist politics. Satisfying enough, in many ways, provocative and entertaining in its play with Canadian political history, but honestly? I'm much more interested in Cinq-Mars as a mature detective in a contemporary setting.

And in The Storm Murders I got what I was waiting for. I downloaded this book to my Kobo the same day I read a very short review of it in The Globe and Mail. The next three days, I must say, were wonderfully lax. My biggest tasks were deciding whether to read inside or outside. . .

Cinq-Mars is retired now, but his attempted transition to a peaceful life in rural Quebec helping his wife care for the horses they breed is threatened by a grisly double murder not too far down the road. Nothing to do with a now-retired police detective, one might think, but Cinq-Mars' reputation has apparently garnered the attention of the FBI, who want him to help investigate the murders' possible connection to a string of similar murders across the U.S. His wife, having thought herself finished with worrying about Cinq-Mars' safety on the job, is understandably resistant. Her reserve is also complicated by notice she has recently served on their relationship, notice that has devastated Cinq-Mars, and notice that adds an interesting depth to the novel in its consideration of the challenges and frustrations and delights of a long-term marriage at late midlife. Something I can definitely relate to.

Cinq-Mars' wife does eventually consent to his involvement in this case, but she makes her consent contingent on one firm condition: that she be kept apprised of every aspect of the case and that Emile share his thinking with her. He goes one better, in fact, and takes her to New Orleans with him, thinking that he can gather information on a potentially connected cold case while playing tourist with his wife as a tentative step toward rebuilding a stronger marriage.

Instead..... well, I'm not going to tell you more than that, except to say that Ferguson does setting very well. Just as he detailed a very convincing picture of Montreal winters in his first two mysteries (City of Ice and Ice Lake), he draws a New Orleans that I can visualize clearly, although I've never visited that city. He peoples the city with several interesting characters as well, and he brings in recent history involving Hurricane Katrina and police brutality and corruption. And oh, if you like action in your mysteries along with great settings and fine character development, you won't be disappointed. We get dramatic action and tense plotting worthy of Jack Reacher, except that poor old Cinq-Mars has a few decades and a recently injured leg on Reacher. . . . The last 25 pages will not tolerate interruption. Seriously!

One of my big fascinations with this novel (and it's probably true of the earlier ones, but I can't remember anymore) is Cinq-Mars' focus on how he knows what he knows. I suppose this focus on epistemology is probably the central fascination of all mystery novels, but Cinq-Mars is the kind of man who theorizes his process in particular and the whole phenomenon of heuristics and hermeneutics in general. In fact, he should meet Commissaire Adamsberg, who has been trusting his intuitive process and following paths his colleagues can't see all the way through Fred Vargas' Temps Glaciares, the novel I just finished yesterday. But that's another post.

Meanwhile, a few passages I highlighted in my Kobo:

Cinq-Mars ruminates about our Canadian conversion to the metric system and summarizes our apparent capriciousness in a way any Canuck will recognize: Canadians were funny that way. In converting to the metric system, the populace had settled on its own hodgepodge system, part metric, part standard, part imperial, part hybrid, so the retired cop commonly judged distances in kilometers now, and would compare prices for a liter of gas, yet if he was buying a car he'd want to know how many miles it got to the gallon. A dichotomy that had become entrenched in the culture. He bought his beef by the kilogram, but he needed the weight of a perpetrator to be reported only in pounds. The distance between a murder victim and the murder weapon might be six meters, but the height of the victim had to be stated as six feet, or four foot ten, whatever it was, otherwise, who would know? Provide a person's height in centimeters and no one of his generation would have a clue how tall the individual might be. Every year when he received his driver's license renewal form he noticed his own height recorded in meters, then promptly forgot it. He was six foot three, still, in feet and inches. . . .Partly because both miles and kilometers were provided by the speedometers of cars purchased in Canada, even though odometers registered kilometers only, he and his compatriots successfully negotiated miles into kliks and back again, but doing so with respect to temperature was always a non-starter. He, like everyone he knew, now understood Celsius and used it to communicate the temperature out-of-doors, while converting back to Fahrenheit, despite having grown up with it, seemed to require a degree in astrophysics. Unless, of course, he happened to be cooking, in which case the Fahrenheit scale prevailed. All a perpetual muddle. On the detective side of his mind, he calculated that if he ever wanted to discern if someone was really a Canadian or an impostor from, say, Delaware, the metric system might serve as a shibboleth. Sooner or later, the American would get it wrong, either by being too officially metric or too casually standard. Twenty miles--thirty-two kilometers, according to his odometer--zipped by.

I also loved Cinq-Mars' approach to prayer (and he's in a situation that demands it, believe me!). The writing here borders on the metaphysical as it makes an argument for an intricate relationship of similarity between prayer and detective work. Yet, at least in my reading, the philosophizing doesn't overtax the mystery genre:
He stood, as if to be transfigured, although inwardly he was wholly prostrate. To receive a new identity and energy, the very act of standing upright was meant to be an accomplishment of his prayer, as yet unspoken, and to be its ultimate prescription as well. He had to work through all this and survive his agony standing, so he started out that way, upright yet broken, presenting himself to the cosmos to have himself, and this juncture with the world, transformed. He prayed. Like detective work, he believed, prayer required the proper approach. Both activities had to be ingenious. Each engaged the unknown, demanded the whole of one's experience and intelligence, vitality and intuition. Ultimately, the detective or the supplicant had to go it alone, no matter how many colleagues were brought in to investigate a crime or how many penitents submitted upon their knees. Humility was key to both endeavors, patience a virtue, honesty a prerequisite that would inevitably become an ongoing adventure of self-discovery. Cinq-Mars was never convinced that one could be done without the other, for even in prayer one needed to investigate, stay attuned, struggle to unravel the secrets and deepest mysteries in order for the act to be increasingly more true to oneself, and therefore more viable. Conversely, in balancing his way through a difficult inquiry into a complex crime, he inevitably needed to stretch himself out and summon the intricacies of the cosmos to have a look, to suggest possibilities, probabilities, improbabilities, chaos and string theories galore to get his mind around fresh core discoveries. Just as the conditions that predated the beginning of time had engaged thinkers and cosmologists for centuries, and theories continue to unfold, any inquiry into a crime shared that mindset: What was life like the instant before all hell broke loose? And before that, what exactly: What particles free-floating in a cosmic stew had collided, and what was borne of that devastating blow: What matters formed? How was it possible for one event, the big bang, say, or a murder, to be triggered out of and within the previous morass? But to get there, to engage, whether it be cosmological speculation or the scrutiny of a crime, required a measured, serious approach, a discriminating evaluation, and a critical judgment of one's own talents, abilities, and even a catalog of one's own shortcomings. For Cinq-Mars, the study of the cosmos as an independent pursuit of knowledge or as a yearning for the godhead, or the study of a crime in order to extrapolate truth from lies and thereby render justice--both these practices--constituted forms of prayer. 

My one disappointment in, or frustration with, this novel isn't a fault of Farrow/Ferguson's, but rather of his editor -- or perhaps a publisher who wasn't willing to splash out on sufficient editing. My enjoyment was marred in a number of spots by the irritation of "its" where there should have been "it's," "to" instead of "too," and even, in one egregious example, a character from a few thousand kilometres away surprisingly, jarringly really, serves food in Cinq-Mars' kitchen. I had to read the page again, read the preceding one, before I realized the wrong name was an error and I hadn't missed anything. A copy editor should have caught that, and I do hope it gets corrected in future editions. Let me know if you spot it!

Because, of course, I'd love to know if you read this. I'd understand, though, if you decide you'd prefer to start at the beginning -- in fact, I know that's what I'd do. Just don't miss out on this great series -- the novels are remarkably satisfying, dissolving those silly borders we draw between literary and popular fiction. If you get to know Cinq-Mars, do come back and tell me what you think. This title is intended as the first in a Cinq-Mars trilogy, so if you enjoy these as much as I do, we have some fun to look forward to together.


  1. I'm bookmarking this,just checked on Amazon Kindle. I love good mystery books and this one sounds just like it
    It seems I'm not the only one reading a couple of books simultanously :-)

  2. It's true. I do often juggle a few books -- different ones suit different times of the day, no? Or different moods or different days of the week. . .

  3. Looks fascinating and I want to read this, but I do think I need to start at the beginning.

  4. That's what I'd do as well, Mardel. I'm pretty sure you'd love the series.

  5. Thanks to your review I'm going to start this series. It sounds intriguing. Although the editing mistakes are difficult to overlook, if the story is good enough I'm willing to.

    And I always have a few books going at once. I never know what type of mood I'll be in as a reader, so I might as well have a lot of options!

  6. Let me know what you think, Danielle. I don't remember noticing editing errors in the series' earlier titles.
    In complete agreement about the need to have a few books on the go simultaneously